Chronic illness, pain, and depression have a tendency to rewrite our personal identities, quite often against our will.
Sometimes this redefining takes place on our external surfaces, where others can see: a small limp in our left leg, which is compensating for an inflamed knee, or a new cane or set of crutches. Yes, the mind knows that using these mobility devices is in a person’s best interest, but the heart still can’t get over the new stares that one receives while walking through the store, or to the still-foreign reflection in the mirror.
Other times this shift in identity is caused by lumps of hair that start to waft around like dandelion tufts in the wind, a result of the medicines that we sometimes take in an attempt to find something–anything–that might slow the progression of our disease. “Don’t be so vain,” some people (including myself) might say, as the tears start to fall at an even faster clip than the hair from my head. “Why does this bother me so much,” I ask out loud–“I have shaved my head on multiple occasions, and loved how I look.”
And then I it comes to me. What’s bothering me is that this change in my physical identity is being done against my will. It doesn’t feel like a choice; it feels like a heavy imposition.
The biggest changes, however, usually come deep down inside where no one can see, other than ourselves. (Sure, other can see our change in persona, and can see how the chronic pain seems to be eating away at us, inside and out…and we often ask ourselves, in desperation, why can no one see what this is doing to me? Though if we are honest, we would have to admit that there are times when it is way too scary to look at ourselves, even though we’re the ones living with this…)
And as with many other things, the harder we refuse to allow it to change us, the more it eventually does.
Two years ago, when I reached rock bottom, I felt like no one, like nothing. I no longer knew who I was; I had no idea what the future (or what the rest of the day, for that matter) had in store for me. I started feeling like a ghost walking amongst others in the crowd–my presence was still slightly detectable, but I wasn’t really there. The pain, the immobility, and the vision loss continued to smother me, and my reality was no longer an issue of low self-esteem. It was a matter of no self-esteem.
I have since learned, though, that this bleak experience was actually a wonderful opportunity in disguise. Yes, my pain and disability had taken away so much of my sense of self, that I was now operating with a blank canvas…but as any artist will tell you, a blank canvas is meant to be filled. The beautiful thing is that this time around, I was able to re-build myself, and re-define myself, exactly as I wanted. Instead of spending precious energy on the Sisyphean task of trying to make my rheumatoid arthritis go away, as I so often did over the past decade, I was able to paint it’s presence into my landscape, and to see the happiness, and self-awareness, that it has bought into my life.
I now wake up every day, knowing I have become exactly who I’ve always wanted to be. I look back at the journey that bought me to the present, and I know it wasn’t easy; I also look into the future, and know that major challenges will inevitably continue to appear on my path. But I am okay with that, because I now know who I am.
Thanks to my chronic illness, I finally know who I am.
Stay tuned…for the next adventure of Rheumatoid Arthritis Guy!